|Highland Art from the Collections of the Royal Scottish Academy: A Window to the West - Book Review|
16 June 2008
Highland Art from the Collections of the Royal Scottish Academy: A Window to the West
The Royal Scottish Academy has had Highland art at it heart since its foundation. On the one hand these artists helped to create the stereotype of the Highlands as a land of mountain and mist, on the other hand they have critiqued that stereotype. This selection of work from the Academy collection shows both these currents at work, often within the same image. The earliest work reproduced dates from the 1770s the most recent from 2005. It makes a real contribution to our understanding of the development of the iconography of the Highlands from the late eighteenth century onwards. Consider, for example, James Archer’s 1874 portrait of John Stuart Blackie, Professor of Greek at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor of Ancient Literature at the Royal Scottish Academy. On the one hand Blackie was a lover of romantic Highland landscape and on the other he was a pragmatic defender of the rights of Gaels, both in terms of land rights and in terms of crucial support for the development of Celtic studies. It is this tension between the Highlands as spectacle and the Highlands as culture that runs through this book, for this art was created during a period of two centuries when the suppression of the Gaidhealtachd and consequent emigration was at its height.
R. R. McIan’s famous images of Highlanders encapsulate the paradoxes of attitudes to the Gaidhealtachd and the Highlands that characterised the nineteenth century and still have not been resolved today. His images of kilt clad Highland warriors have become fundamental to the stereotype. Yet McIan was a native Gaelic speaker well aware of the actuality of the Highlands and his work, taken as whole rather than selectively, builds into a visual anthropology of Highland dress and life. As Hugh Cheape has pointed out, McIan is one of the few sources we have for women’s dress in the Highlands. McIan’s work is a precursor of that of David Forrester Wilson in Islay in the 1930s, and the rediscovery of Wilson’s work in this book is well worthy of note.
The book has painting as its focus but important reminders of the wider role of the Royal Scottish Academy with respect to both architecture and sculpture are included. For example, Hew Lorimer’s Our Lady of the Isles, near Howmore in South Uist, is one of the great works of European sculpture of the 1950s. It is also a reminder that one that one of the earliest members of the Royal Scottish Academy, the Gaelic-speaking Samuel Mackenzie, who made his name as a portrait painter, started his career as a stone mason for Thomas Telford’s projects in the Highlands. The quality of his stone carvings in Edinburgh can be seen in the sphinxes which complete Robert Adam’s design for the north side of Charlotte Square.
Highland art is one of the defining currents of Scottish art. This is true whether one looks back to prehistoric rock art - which has inspired so many contemporary artists – or to major works of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd such as the Book of Kells and the great crosses of Iona and Islay, or to the work of William McTaggart, the Gaelic speaker who pioneered modern art in Scotland. An important phase of Highland art is explored in this selection from the Royal Scottish Academy collection. These images will be of interest to a wide range of people but they also address research questions at the heart of Window to the West: Towards a redefinition of the visual within Gaelic Scotland, an AHRC funded project led by Murdo Macdonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee. The project is run from the Visual Research Centre of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee, in collaboration with the Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, in Skye. How are memory and history represented visually? How do artists respond to geography? How does visual culture develop through periods of demographic change? These questions are fundamental, and it is in that context that Will Maclean, who is both a project team advisor and a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, suggested the present book which has its origin in the Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibition for 2007, which had a core of Highland work, curated by Arthur Watson. Part of this drew on the riches of the Academy’s own collection and that became the starting point of the present book. Those images, selected by Joanna Soden, ranged from W. G. Gillies’ photo albums via John Blake Macdonald’s painting of lamentation after the Massacre of Glencoe to etchings by Alexander Runciman illustrating James Macpherson’s Ossian. Three very different views of the Highlands: one a twentieth century context for landscape imagery, one a nineteenth century revisiting of seventeenth century Highland history, one a visual exploration of the remaking of Gaelic legends in the wake of the cultural destruction which followed the battle of Culloden. A great many other currents of thought were implied by this exhibition, including linkages to the contemporary art of An Leabhar Mòr / The Great Book of Gaelic in which a number of members of the Royal Scottish Academy were involved.
On the one hand this Royal Scottish Academy exhibition led to the current book, on the other it led to more exhibitions with which the book is assocaited. Not only was Joanna’s Soden’s selection repeated at the Royal Scottish Academy, but it has already led to two more exhibitions (as of June 2008) in collaboration with the Window to the West research project. One of these ‘Window to the West: The Highlands and Islands in Art’, was selected from the art collections of the University of Dundee, the Royal Scottish Academy and the University of Edinburgh, and curated by Matthew Jarron of the University of Dundee Museum Services, Joanna Soden of the Royal Scottish Academy, Jill Forrest of the University of Edinburgh and Lesley Lindsay of the Window to the West project. The collaboration between two universities and the RSA has enabled a number of other key Highland works to be displayed including Keith Henderson’s famous but little seen Wool Waulking: Barra, courtesy of the University of Edinburgh and John Duncan’s wonderful Celtic revival painting, The Glaive of Light, courtesy of the University of Dundee. This exhibition opened in March and continues to June. In April a linked Highland art exhibition at An Lanntair in Stornoway. This was a joint curation by the Royal Scottish Academy and the Window to the West project. Highlights included Lewis works by James Cumming and Richard Demarco’s record in drawings of his Highland journeys in the 1970s. The opening of this exhibition on 12 April 2008 was marked both by the Western Isles launch of the current book, and by the RSA Annual William Gillies Lecture, on the topic of ‘Highland Art’ given by Murdo Macdonald. This was the first time that this annual lecture had been presented outside Edinburgh.
But above all this book is a visual discourse. The intention is to stimulate thought rather than to be comprehensive. At the same time this book acts as a timely reminder of the central role that Royal Scottish Academicians have played in the development of the diverse iconography of the Gaidhealtachd.
Price £10. Copies available from the Royal Scottish Academy, contact Susan Junge 0131 225 6671 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For further information or images please contact:
Kirsty Dickson, Press Assistant, Royal Scottish Academy, The Mound, Edinburgh
T 0131 225 6671 W email@example.com
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